Change, Challenge, and Conflict:
You Are Never Alone

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 9, 2018

Scripture Lesson: 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 7-9,
16-18 (adapted from The Message)


          Good morning, Beloved! It is a beautiful day. And it is such a joy to be with you for worship. Even though I was on vacation for only two weeks – and I returned in the middle of that to preach on August 26 – I have missed you all and I am very glad to be back. 

          Today is the fourth and final Sunday worship in our powerful series on Change, Challenge and Conflict. If you missed any of the sermons, I encourage you to read them on our website, churchofthevillage.org. 
          Let us pray: Holy One, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, so that as your Word and your desire for us are proclaimed, we will be able to hear and take in your message for us this day. Amen. 

           In his letter to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul is trying to teach the community there the value of being challenged by life’s circumstances without becoming dejected, discouraged, or giving up the fight. The trick, he says, is to be open and be our authentic selves, trying our best to let the bright light of Christ shine through us. Accept that there are going to be challenges, yet – knowing that God never leaves your side – don’t allow yourself to become demoralized or broken.

           Both before and during our vacation, Diane and I faced some significant challenges. We were – and all of us at the Church of the Village were – challenged by Adela’s struggle with cancer and then her entry into hospice care and her death over the summer. In August, Diane faced the challenge in her own family over whether or not to discontinue her brother’s treatment for cancer and place him in hospice care. That was followed, after his death, by a messy residual dispute over when and where to hold the funeral.

           The reality is that we all face challenges all the time as individuals and in our life together as a community. Challenge is our constant companion. One of the more dangerous theological positions in the bible is the idea that God deliberately puts obstacles and challenges in our way to see if we can handle them. Really? Did God cause Adela’s cancer – or Diane’s or her brother’s? Did God create war or racism to challenge us? No! God does not put us to the test. On the contrary, challenges are an unavoidable part of our individual and communal lives. Yet, just as challenge is our constant companion, so too, God is our constant companion and inspiration. Far from testing us, God accompanies us with love, grace, and guidance, through all of the challenges we face in our complicated, risky, and ever-changing lives.

           If you think about it, for even a moment, you realize that not one of us goes even a single day without having to deal with a variety of challenges. Some of them are small. Often, they are very significant. They range from subway delays to facing serious illness. They are about economic insecurity, emotional turmoil, a difficult relationship, trouble at work, or any of the host of difficulties, obstacles, or circumstances that can give us headaches, anxiety, and disrupt our sleep. Sometimes we just roll with our challenges. At other times, they feel overwhelming. 

           The challenges we all face pose both risks and benefits for us. We risk failure, disappointment, sorrow, suffering, and pain. Yet, every challenging situation also offer us the possibility of learning, growth, maturity, deepening relationships, and the experience of God’s guiding presence with us. Each one is an opportunity to allow God to help us grow in strength, resilience, wisdom, and love. We learn through how we respond to challenges and obstacles to trust God, trust ourselves, and trust those with whom we are in relationship – both individually and communally. As the scripture says, we can be “surrounded and battered by troubles, but not demoralized; we’re can be unsure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we may be spiritually terrorized, but God never leaves our side.” God is always with us in the midst of our challenges and helps us to find our way through. At the lowest and most difficult points of our lives, God is there to help us make a way out of no way and to turn our negatives into positives. As Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” God can lead us to make something good come out of even the worst decisions or circumstances. 

            Bishop Karen Oliveto has faced a lot of challenge in her life and certainly since her election as bishop in 2016. As the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church, her election was immediately called into question by homophobic forces in the church. She has a new book out which tells her story that I recommend to you. 
           When Karen was growing up on Long Island, she had always felt God’s constant presence very deeply. When she was only 11 years old, she determined to become an ordained minister. Yet, when she entered seminary, she felt like God had left her. She had not come out yet, even to herself. She had struggled to stifle and ignore her feelings but, as she writes, “my first year of study deconstructed my faith and life.” She felt compelled to face parts of herself that she had suppressed her entire life. In her brokenness, she writes, “I listened to the stories of lesbian and gay students and recognized myself in their stories. I struggled deeply, realizing that for most of my life I knew there was something different about me, even before I had a name for it.” After a year internal grappling with this, she was finally able to embrace the fullness of who she was. She immediately felt God’s presence again and a deep sense of peace. She writes, “I learned an important lesson: God doesn’t ever leave us. We leave God when we deny who we are and who God created us to be.”

           Not only is God always with us, but God has help us to evolve and develop specific tools to face every challenge we encounter and to do so with fortitude, resilience, calm, and faith. I want to share just one example. When social psychologist Amy Cuddy was about to finish her Ph.D., she attended a conference at which she was supposed to try to influence university professors to hire her in their academic departments. At one point, she found herself in an elevator with three famous scholars in her field. One of them challenged her, saying, “Okay, you’ve got a captive audience. Let’s hear your pitch.” She proceeded to completely blow the opportunity. Caught off guard and unconfident of herself, she stumbled over her words, qualified everything she said, and was generally incoherent. When they reached their floor, the last professor to exit said, “That’s the worst elevator pitch I’ve ever heard.” Ouch! 

            She thought her career was shot but, in response to this big and embarrassing failure, Amy didn’t give up. She determined to study and learn what it is that makes it possible for some people to face this kind of challenge with calm composure and confidence and for others to fall apart. She discovered that it has nothing to do with our economic status, our background, our educational level, gender, or any number of other characteristics. She discovered that what determines success in facing this sort of challenge is what she calls “presence” –  “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential.” Presence requires having “confidence without arrogance.” It is about being in the moment with your most honest, vulnerable, and authentic self. And, you have to believe in what you are trying to convey. She also realized that “presence” is not something we either have or don’t have, but is an aspect and attitude we can foster in ourselves. Among other things, Cuddy suggests when going into challenging situations, such as meeting new people, receiving or giving critical feedback, or public speaking, that you prepare beforehand and in private by assuming “power poses” – perhaps like Wonder Woman…  or Black Panther (Wakanda forever!). Also, when we are actually in the moment, we can gain a feeling of confidence and courage by sitting or standing up straight, keeping our feet on the ground, with our chin up, taking slow, deep breaths, maintaining eye contact, and speaking deliberately about what we believe. It’s about encouraging ourselves with our own intentional body language. Cuddy says there is a body-to-mind feedback loop that allows us to “fake it until we become it.” This reminds me of the instruction a clergy friend gave to John Wesley when he was just starting out in ministry and was not sure he had the strength of belief to be a preacher. Peter Böhler said to Wesley, “Preach faith until you have it. Then you will preach faith because you do have it.” This “body-mind feedback loop” and other tools are gifts from God to facilitate our ability to face challenges. So, instead of avoiding or running away from challenges, we ought to embrace them! In order to do that with a sense of confidence, calm, and hope, we need to believe in God and in ourselves. 

           God also helps us to face challenges by encouraging and inspiring us to develop strong relationships and communities. I find I am generally able to face challenges – even big ones – with a high level of shalom – with a sense of peace and well-being and trust that things will work for good in the end. And one big reason is that I have a great support system. Diane is my number one support, but I also have good friends I can talk things through with, and I feel very supported and affirmed by the staff, lay leadership, and membership of our community. It makes a huge difference in one’s life. It’s hard to feel confident and courageous when you feel alone. That’s is just one reason why this community is so important for us.

            God never leaves us and never lets us face our challenges alone. God continually offers us the gifts of their love, grace, and guiding Spirit. God works in us continually to help us develop confidence, courage, and resilience. And even when we fail to overcome a particular difficulty or obstacle, we meet a challenge well when we can learn from it and are able to move on – not allowing ourselves to give up or fall into despair or depression. Rather than blaming God for our failure, we can learn to trust that God will bring something good out of our circumstances. One personal example of that is that through their challenging recent experience together, several of Diane’s family member developed much closer relationships with each other and committed to building upon this new beginning.

           We face many challenges as a community at the Church of the Village. We experience significant conflict and change. We are not growing as quickly as we would like. We still face financial challenges. Our old building is constantly in need of repairs. Yet, we also know that what we are trying to do here in building beloved community as a beacon of light for the world is so important. We know that we are never alone and even when “we’re not sure what to do, we know that God knows what to do” and is leading us to our best possible outcomes. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, even though it may sometimes feel like things are falling apart on us, God is among us, making new life, “and not a day goes by without her unfolding grace.”

           Friends, never forget how much God loves you and God desires the best for you – not only desires, but works for the best outcomes. God loves each one of us and loves this community with a love that is too amazing for us to ever fully grasp. I thank God for each of you and for this community of faith and I praise God every day for God’s constant companionship, love, and guidance. Thank you, God, for never leaving us alone.

Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.